Owners who are trying to decipher their dog’s body language and behavior tend to focus on their eyes, posture and bark—and for good reason. Francisco Barrios, a dog trainer and behavior counselor at K9 Turbo Training in Michigan, says these are all smart ways to determine what your dog is trying to tell you and how he’s feeling about other people, other dogs and his environment.
A crucial part of the body-language puzzle, though, is a dog’s tail. While different types of wags might not mean much to us, trained professionals can tell a lot about a dog’s mood from the way his tail is positioned.
Here are five common types of wags and what each may mean:
The ‘High and Tight’
Heather Luedecke, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Delighted Dog Training Academy in Ohio, says a high tail signifies that a dog is about to move into a new situation, likely with some apprehension.
This dog might be feeling playful, which can be determined by how loose the dog’s tail is when it stands straight up, but perhaps more common is a tail that’s standing straight up and stiff—high and tight.
“A high, stiff tail shouldn’t be interpreted as friendly in most breeds,” Luedecke says. “When a dog’s tail is tail straight in the air and it’s tip is wagging, that dog shouldn’t be approached.”
If the rest of the dog’s body language appears stiff, or if he’s staring at someone or something with intensity, Luedecke says you want to do whatever you can to disrupt the dog’s attention and move him out of that situation. Generally speaking, Luedecke says, the higher the tail is, the more heightened the dog’s emotions are.
The ‘Sweeping Broom’
The same principle applies to a low-hanging, stiff tail. Essentially, if you flip the “high and tight” wag around, Luedecke says you’re looking at a tail that resembles a broom sweeping across the floor. This type of wag, she says, is all about appeasement, and the lower the tail looks, the more anxious the dog might be feeling.
“These dogs are usually trying to communicate that they mean no harm, trying to demonstrate they are socially appropriate,” she says. “Letting them approach, sniff and relax a little before you pet or play with them is ideal.”
If you pet that dog before its tail returns to a normal position, Luedecke says that dog might display other submissive or appeasement behaviors, such as submissive urination.
The ‘Loosey Goosey’
In general, a loose wag can be interpreted as a good wag, Barrios says. “It means that the dog is relaxed in the situation he or she is in.”
However, different dogs express this relaxed feeling in slightly different ways. For example, Barrios says the speed of the tail wag may tell us how heightened a particular emotion is.
“Intuitively, a higher-speed tail wagging is related to a higher level of excitement, and a lower-speed tail wagging to a lower level of excitement,” he says.
Some dogs are simply not as expressive as others, however, so you should know when your dog’s wag seems faster or slower, higher or lower, looser or stiffer than it normally is to determine an appropriate benchmark for your individual dog.
Additionally, Barrios says that older dogs sometimes show less emotion via body language, including their tail, than younger ones. The tail is still one of their primary methods of communication, he says, but because older dogs are more experienced, various stimuli don’t elicit the same reaction as they would in a younger dog.
The ‘Charlie Brown’
Sometimes, a dog’s tail will tuck up underneath his body. That’s the “Charlie Brown” tail—think of how Charlie Brown looks when his football has just been pulled away and he needs to walk home by himself, dejected.
Luedecke says that while this tail might look sad, it likely signifies that a dog is feeling upset, frustrated or anxious.
“A dog with a tucked tail should be moved away from whatever is making it upset,” she says. “If approaching a dog whose tail is tucked up under his body, move away and give him space. If a dog looks worried, allow him to approach, sniff, move away, and then invite him to approach for petting. Don’t walk right up and just start touching him.”
Not all dogs have the same long, swooping tail we tend to imagine when we think of the body part.
“A shorter, stubby tail has the same function as a longer one,” Barrios says, and various types of wagging mean the same thing for dogs with stubby tails, like Pugs and English Bulldogs, as they do for dogs with long tails.
Dogs with short tails, and shorter faces, cropped ears or unusual coat types, may experience some difficulty in communicating with other dogs or people.
“[Dogs with short tails may] be difficult for other dogs to read,” Luedecke says. “They may struggle with dog-dog interactions, as well as interaction with humans.”
As a result, dogs that have trouble expressing themselves using their tails may be more likely to escalate to other distance-increasing behaviors, like growling, barking or snapping, more quickly, Luedecke says.
For these dogs, look to the base of the tail and, in some cases, the entire hind end, she says, which tends to move as a tail would for breeds with stubby tails.
Illustrations by Josh Carter